This story was first published in the February 28, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.
(Video and Photo Gallery)
By Gwen Stanley, Standard Staff
Sgt. Peter Mantello, wearing the muted olive green uniform of Woodstock’s finest, secured the perimeter of Woodstock Union High School and Middle School with yellow “caution” tape Friday morning — in preparation for the police training to take place inside.
At WUHS/MS that morning, about 40 state police officers, DEA agents and local police officers gathered for intensive training in how to react to an active shooter in the building. Walking the long hallways of the middle school toward the auditorium, Mantello said similar trainings take place all over the state.
In all likelihood local officers, like Mantello, would be the first responders to their schools in the case of an active shooter, and under new protocol, they’d be expected to aggressively neutralize the threat — a change from the old rule of waiting for a tactical unit to arrive.
In the school’s auditorium, Sgt. Steve Otis emphasized safety for the day’s training, telling the officers pointedly to check the orange safety strings on their weapons. The strings indicated the weapons were unloaded.
Otis told the officers they were in the building for the next four hours, and that “if you see something dangerous here today, we expect you to say something.”
Furthermore, he said, “check your egos at the door.”
Sgt. Jeremy Hill, who works with the arson bureau at the St. Albans barracks, set the scene for the group, re-hashing an event that shook Vermont residents nearly seven years ago.
In 2006, two people died and two were injured at a shooting at Essex Elementary School, when a man went on a rampage seemingly stemming from frustrations with his girlfriend, a teacher at the school.
The shooter took the life of his girlfriend’s mother at her home and then went to the school in search of her.
“At the time, Essex was in the forefront of the active shooter training,” Hill said. “As a matter for fact, they’d just had a lockdown drill that morning.”
It happened that school was out for in-service, so only staff and their children were in the building.
At the time, Hill said, a group of officers were training a few towns over, and within 30 minutes more than 200 officers had converged on the campus.
“We were lucky,” said Hill, who was one of the first on the scene that day, “but the fact is that many schools in the state are fairly far from the tactical headquarters.”
Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, protocol for dealing with an active shooter has changed, and officers now are trained that the first on the scene will try to locate the shooter, rather than wait for a tactical unit to arrive.
“Up until Columbine,” Hill said, “it was ‘surround, contain, and call tactical guys.’ Columbine was a turning point for law enforcement.
“Now we know the first-line officers on the scene need to aggressively go in there and neutralize the threat, as opposed to what we used to do — call in resources and ask for assistance.”
An across-the-board active shooter strategy — one that can be adapted to fit different schools and venues — can help avoid a “blue on blue” situation, when several units are on the scene and confusion ensues about who’s in command, according to Hill.
Hill said that the first thing that needs to be established is an officer outside in the parking lot directing others on where to go. This officer needs to have radio contact with an officer on the inside at all times. A strategy should be laid out and clearly communicated between those inside and those outside.
However, timing is of the essence.
“Strategy is not sitting out in the parking lot writing it out on a white board hashing it out,” Hill said.
The officers broke up into teams and began drills on how to approach doors. An open door, Hill told the group, is more of a threat than a closed one, due to the fact that a shooter could be tucked in between the open door and the wall.
In a lockdown situation, classrooms with people in them would be closed and secured.
“Some schools have a code word that means, ‘Yeah, we’re OK,’” Hill said. “But for the most part (teachers) are told to get the kids, keep the kids quiet…some teachers would bring snacks, books to keep the kids quiet…and lock those doors and don’t open them for anybody.”
Working in pairs, they went through the protocol for opening doors — one stands behind and ducks under the other to open, and the officer in front catches the door with their foot and keeps it open. Then the rear officer gives a tap on the backside of the front officer, who enters the room with his weapon raised.
Trooper Eric Vitali guided Mantello and another Woodstock officer Mark Donka, in entering rooms.
“Every room is going to be different,” Vitali said. “At the end of the day, we just need to get through the situation and survive and eliminate our threats to our public.”
Hill said that the door practice can’t be done too often.
“I got so that I could do this in my sleep,” he said.
The officers are trained to move down hallways in “diamond formation” — one officer takes the front, called the “point man,” two flank that officer at his or her sides, and the fourth takes up the rear, which, Hill said, is an often-overlooked area of threat. This formation is taken from a military technique; the idea is that the officers have overlapping fields of vision and shooting ranges.
The potential chaos of an active shooter scenario was emphasized, as the officers need to be prepared for their vision to be obscured by smoke from an improvised explosive device, for victims’ screams and gunfire.
In his remarks at the auditorium, Hill said that one of the most difficult things to deal with is what police call “sympathetic shooting,” the reflex to pull the trigger when you hear gunfire.
“You’re going to have victims popping out at you, even clutching on to you because they’re relieved to see you, and that’s when your trigger control and discipline is going to have to come out,” Hill said.
Lt. Chuck Rataj attended the training, along with colleagues from the Norwich Police Department Mike Scruggs and Frank Schippert.
“If something happened over here (Woodstock), I’m sure I’d be called in,” said Rataj, who has 21 years of service in the National Guard under his belt.